There was one thing in Jon Barton’s letter to the editor today that most of us can agree with. “What we are doing”, he writes, “isn’t working”. Why then do he and his acolytes persist on pursuing the same failed development schemes? This exact topic came up at this week’s chamber luncheon held at The Mill Casino when Wim de Vriend provided a five minute overview of his book The JOB Messiahs to an audience of about sixty local business people.
The meeting, sponsored by the Port of Coos Bay, featured as its main speaker retiring State Senator JoAnn Verger. But Verger’s speech was preceded by a five-minute “Business presentation” talk by de Vriend, the owner of Coos Bay’s Blue Heron restaurant who doubles as a persistent critic of local economic development efforts. The second, updated edition of de Vriend’s hefty tome “The JOB-Messiahs” saw the light of day last spring. Focusing mainly on the dismal, forty-year record of the Port of Coos Bay’s “development” projects, “The JOB-Messiahs” concluded that those efforts have been counterproductive, setting back the area’s economy instead of advancing it.
Using an egg-timer to stay within his allotted five minutes, De Vriend delivered the customary eulogy to his restaurant to the assembled Chamber members, but soon strayed into what seems to be his chief obsession. As small business people, he told the audience of sixty or seventy…
“. . . you may know that running your business is a lot like riding a boat: you rise and fall with the tide, but the tide has been going out on the Coos Bay economy for a long time. During the last thirty years Coos County – except for Bandon – has been the only pocket of decline and depression in thriving, growing Western Oregon. Some of the counties round us have doubled and tripled. But we’ve shrunk, despite the fact that we had about 18 economic development agencies to make us grow. The results remind me of my kids on car-trips, when they were little: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” And finally: “Why does it take so long?”
Gaining chuckles from the audience, he made the case that not only the methods of the economic development agencies had been wrong, but also their high assessment of Coos Bay’s economic potential, which he described as “absurd”. Their assumption, he claimed, has been that Coos Bay is “the best natural port between San Francisco and Seattle, and the only reason it has not become an industrial center or a World Port is some dark conspiracy by Portland, or the lack of a freeway, or some other boondoggle. Coos Bay is NOT a natural harbor, but even if it were, it’s in the wrong place, and it will never have the connections to be a World Port or an industrial center. Reality does not depend on wild slogans but on geography.”
De Vriend then called for an entirely different development policy for Coos Bay. He described this policy as “Trust the People.” The Port’s obsession with bringing in new smokestacks, he claimed, has discouraged people from settling here: “In Coos Bay, you see, there was always the threat that any day, some obnoxious heavy industry might be built: a pulp mill, a smelter, a steel mill. It never happened, but the threat had its effects.” Instead of subsidizing big corporations and building “boondoggles and white elephants,” Coos Bay should attract “New people who like this place. People with ideas, enterprise, imagination, and some money. People who seize an opportunity, just like the old days, before we had all these economic developers running around.”
According to De Vriend, the people who could have improved Coos Bay’s economy went to other places on the coast instead, such as Florence and Bandon. “As a result, our real estate values are 25% lower than in those towns, and I see abandoned homes all over my own neighborhood. . . . we need to set a different course.”
Next, JoAnn Verger’s service as a Coos Bay councilwoman, mayor and legislator caused her to be introduced as “an amazing woman.” When she gained the microphone she launched into a description of the hazards of political power in Salem, that was vivid as well as memorable. Warning that excessive power tends to intoxicate people, she cautioned her fellow Democrats that there could be a severe downside to their present control of both houses of the Oregon Legislature along with the Governor’s office. “You do what you do because you can . . . (but) “arrogance is always unbecoming”, she warned, and “success is always temporary.” “Drunk with ambition,” she added, “people may need to be awakened.” This warning she described as “My shot across the bow of the next Legislature.”
After mentioning impending legislative efforts to control guns, an issue on which she was noncommittal, Verger blamed the failure of Coos Bay’s past efforts to attract new industries on “special interests,” clearly her own description of environmentalists. She did recommend that those in favor of industrial development sit down with those “special interests for a meeting of the mind. . . Have we tried before? Yes, but we need to try again.” Claiming that the special interests had “scared off investors, so they went elsewhere,” she admitted: “These are not bad people. But they don’t understand our community. Some haven’t even been here.”
When I asked de Vriend why he had not taken the opportunity to ask Senator Verger a question after her speech (no one else had, either), he said that he respected her and didn’t want to incite an argument at what had been a pleasant meeting. His own objective, he said, had been “to put the bug in some people’s ear.” But he was critical of Verger’s assessment of environmentalists as people who don’t understand the community. “There are extremists on both sides,” he granted, “but most so-called environmentalists merely want to be left alone by the industrial promoters, who tell a lot of lies, waste a lot of money and never achieve anything anyway. But where I really differ with JoAnn is her claim that people opposed to those hare-brained schemes don’t understand this community. They understand it much better than promoters like JoAnn do. The main reason why all the efforts of the economic development bunch have been for naught is their completely unrealistic idea of Coos Bay’s economic potential,” and he added: “JoAnn’s description of the intoxicating effects of power at the state level are right on. But she’d be wise to apply that insight to the local development lobby, which has very serious problems with sharing power. The Port of Coos Bay made itself unanswerable to the voters 27 years ago, and they did it through blatant election fraud. FONSI’s board meetings are closed to the public, and the same is true of SCDC, even though it exists mostly on government money. And directly or indirectly these outfits control several other development outfits like enterprise zones and urban renewal. You call that democratic?”